Half the FAFSA: Cutting the Red Tape to Postsecondary Student Aid

With a new Administration and the 115th Congress in place, America Forward remains committed to championing innovative, effective, and efficient solutions to our most pressing social problems. Through our Coalition of more than 70 social innovation organizations and our network of partners, America Forward will continue to advance our collective priorities in the areas of education, workforce development, early learning, poverty alleviation, public health, Pay for Success, social innovation, national service, and criminal justice reform. Today Carrie Warick, Director of Policy and Advocacy, and Allie Ciaramella, Communications Manager with the National College Access Network (NCAN) highlight how simplifying the FAFSA through the Higher Education Act reauthorization process will help prospective college students.

Carlos, a first-generation North Carolina student, describes the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as “just a riddle that had to be solved for me. It took a long time.” With no parental knowledge to lean on, Carlos at first had no idea what the FAFSA was or how to confront it, but with help from his persistent advisor at Davidson College Advising Corps, Carlos was able to file the application and ultimately choose a good-fit institution.

Filing the FAFSA is an essential process for most prospective college students; 85 percent of four-year students receive financial aid, and those who complete the FAFSA are 63 percent more likely to enroll. However, the complexity and length of the application results in low completion rates and leaves roughly $24 billion in federal student aid unclaimed. The National College Access Network (NCAN), given its commitment to the success of low-income students, has developed and consumer-tested a new Streamlined FAFSA that resolves these shortcomings by reducing completion time, improving accuracy and increasing usability for families and students.

A simpler, easier FAFSA could help students like Carlos.

“I remember going in multiple times – ‘Did I do this right? What does this mean?’” Carlos said.

The Davidson College Advising Corps is a member of NCAN, and Carlos recently traveled to Washington, DC, with his advisor, Annie Wells, to share his story at an NCAN-hosted FAFSA briefing and to meet with the office of his Representative, Virginia Foxx (R-NC), who chairs the House Education and Workforce Committee.

“I shouldn’t be having to spend time helping them through the form, question by question when they are academically bright students,” Wells said.

In fact, despite the refrain that the FAFSA takes just one hour to complete, for certain students, it takes far longer – about two weeks in Carlos’ case.

As low-income students struggle to afford higher education, making financial aid more accessible and more quickly, will allow more students to follow in Carlos’ footsteps to not only access college but also attend the institution that’s the right fit for them. Changing the current form will require Congressional action through the Higher Education Act, which is overdue for renewal, or other legislative means.

The current FAFSA is a 142-question universal, free form used to apply for student financial aid from the U.S. Department of Education. Since the original version was designed in 1992, regular enhancements have been made to the FAFSA, but financial aid applicants today still face obstacles such as not understanding the form, an overly complex and long application, and the burden of finding the multitude of separate financial and other sources necessary to complete the form. The Streamlined FAFSA reduces the current form’s questions by half or more by guiding applicants down one of three pathways and using existing federal aid information and IRS data to auto-complete certain questions.


Key to the universality and brevity of the Streamlined FAFSA is its “State Page,” which collects the information that certain states need to administer their aid. Filers would be required to fill out this form only for states that have opted into the inclusion of these questions.

Families indicated the user-tested model is not only shorter and faster but also easier to use and more accurate than the existing FAFSA. Goals of the Streamlined FAFSA include to stop asking poor students to repeatedly prove they’re poor, and help low-income students know they’ll receive aid; to improve the user experience, removing questions that are not needed for the federal aid formula and that are answered by the fewest number of people; to maintain the universality of the form; and to increase FAFSA filings.

Low-income students are less likely than their wealthier peers to file the FAFSA, even though 92 percent of those who do receive free grants. NCAN’s Streamlined FAFSA comes at early awareness in another way: low-income students can know right away, before even completing the form, that they’re eligible for a full Pell Grant.

During his time on Capitol Hill, Carlos shared that, “without the FAFSA, I don’t think I would have been able to go to college – I wouldn’t have been able to afford it.” Carlos is one of the lucky ones. He had an advisor to tell him financial aid is available and help him through the process. Simplifying the FAFSA will help more students like Carlos, the ones who are not fortunate enough to have an Annie to help them.

Carrie Warick is the Director of Policy and Advocacy for the National College Access Network, leading NCAN’s policy and advocacy work to promote policies that support low-income, first-generation, and minority students access to and success in higher education. She holds a Masters of Public Policy, with a concentration in education policy, and a Bachelor’s degree in International Affairs and History, both from The George Washington University. Carrie is a co-chair of the Education Taskforce for Women in Government Relations and lives with her husband and daughter in Northeast DC.

Allie Ciaramella is Communications Manager at the National College Access Network, where she delivers and promotes key messages, information and opportunities to NCAN members, policymakers, the media and other stakeholders in the field of college access and success. Before joining NCAN in May 2016, Mrs. Ciaramella covered federal and state higher education policy at POLITICO Pro after working as a reporter at Inside Higher Ed. She earned her bachelor’s degree in 2010 from the University of Oregon, majoring in newspaper/editorial journalism and minoring in environmental studies.

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